Most parents will have been left worried by the prime minister’s lockdown announcement – none more so than those who live separately. The question on every co-parent’s lips: will I be able to see my child (or children) over the next few weeks – or even months?
The confusion wasn’t lifted by cabinet office minister Michael Gove appearing on Good Morning Britain to say children couldn’t move freely between households. “Children should stay in the household they are currently in. We should not have children moving between households,” he said, before backtracking a few hours later and admitting he was wrong.
Under the new government guidance, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes if parents don’t live in the same household.
As Natalie Wiles, a chartered legal executive at Langleys Solicitors, tells HuffPost UK: “The government has now clarified that it is ok for children to spend time with each parent where there are separate households and that existing arrangements should be maintained.”
While this will be a huge relief to many families, how do you implement safe and responsible co-parenting during such difficult times?
Co-parenting advice during coronavirus
Communication between separated parents is “vital” right now, says Wiles.“It is important to remember that both parents will usually share parental responsibility for any dependent child and that parents should keep each other informed in relation to the health and wellbeing of their children,” she explains.
Older children should be included in conversations, too – especially now they are no longer at school or seeing their friends, and having to adjust to a new reality.
Pam Stallard, 32, from Brighton, is currently co-parenting with her ex Amber, 33, and Amber’s mother, Liz. Their three-year-old son Cole has been spending time in both homes – and the family plans to continue sharing childcare during the lockdown. Pam, Amber and Liz have been self-isolating for the past week since Pam, a teacher, showed symptoms of coronavirus. How do they make it work?
“The absolute key is communication, and I am so lucky that my ex and I have a really good line of communication and it’s been improving since the need has arisen,” Pam tells HuffPost UK. “We support each other and understand that by helping each other, we’re making Cole’s life better, which is the most important thing of all.”
Managing self-isolation between households
Everything co-parents do, every choice made, should be in the child’s best interests. A child needs stability and routine – and maintaining this, while also keeping them safe during the outbreak, is paramount. There will be some tough calls in the coming months. One of the biggest questions is how people navigate self-isolation if they, or their child, gets sick.
If one household in a co-parenting set-up does show symptoms, it’s important to follow the guidelines and self-isolate for 14 days – and yes, this means parents in different households both self-isolating if they want a child to move between their homes freely.
“I do all the driving to keep different places to a minimum,” says Pam. “Today I will collect Cole from Nanny’s (Liz’s house) and bring him home to me, then tomorrow afternoon I will take him to Amber, obeying all social distancing rules and only going from my house to the car, and the car to her back garden.”
When the family comes out of self-isolation, Cole will be going to nursery on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday so that Amber and Pam can both work – “mostly from home, but there is a rota at school I will have to commit to,” says Pam. When this is avoidable they will keep their son at one of their homes.
Sam, who preferred not to share his surname, sees his two-year-old daughter every Friday and Saturday. As it stands, he and his ex-partner are continuing to follow a normal routine of co-parenting. “I can only see it changing if one of us gets ill or the government comes up with stricter guidelines,” he says.
But the 36-year-old from Kent has made the difficult decision not to see his parents – and not to let them see their granddaughter – for the foreseeable future in order to keep them safe. Sam works as a civil servant and still has to head to a busy office every day and he doesn’t know who his ex-partner interacts with, so believes this is the best way to keep his parents, who are classed as high risk, out of harm’s way.
Parenting with a court order during coronavirus
In families where there’s a court order in place determining the arrangements for a child (or children), it should be adhered to – except in circumstances where self-isolation is required, says Natalie Wiles. “If an order is not adhered to without a very good reason it is possible for an enforcement application to be made to the court which could result in penalties for the non-compliant parent.”
In the first instance, parents should be speaking to each other to agree child arrangements. If this isn’t possible, the next step is to seek independent legal advice from a solicitor.
James Maguire, managing partner of Maguire Family Law, acknowledges there will be situations where parents won’t get along and further support is needed to mediate arrangements. “This is especially important to recognise where there is a history of coercive control or domestic violence,” he says. “It will be important that parents, and indeed children, are not forced into inappropriate arrangements at this already difficult time.
“The courts are still open and will accept urgent applications with regards to childcare arrangements. However, delay is likely to be an issue, even with urgent applications, and given the fast moving and changing government advice, there may be no perfect outcome.”
Keeping your child healthy and happy
“It is important during these very worrying times that as much stability is maintained for the children as possible and following established patterns of time spent with each parent will play a big part in this,” says Wiles. Sticking to normal routines is crucial for maintaining emotional wellbeing – both your child’s and yours.
However in families where one parent still has to go to work, it might not be easy for both parents (and therefore both households) to self-isolate – if this is the case, you might need to make a judgment call and hold off seeing your child for 14 days.
Remember there are other methods of maintaining contact such as FaceTime or Skype that allow a child and parent to see each other and speak, even if they can’t physically be together.
If this is the case, make a schedule and stick to it so you know that at a certain time of a certain day (or days) each week, you’ve got 30 minutes (or however long) of uninterrupted FaceTime with your child. You can also download co-parenting apps like 2Houses or AppClose where you can manage schedules, message each other, and in some cases add photos and drawings that your child has done, so the other parent can keep up-to-date.
Anna Giannone, a co-parenting coach, recommends making a parenting plan to stay on top of your schedules – regardless of whether you’re having to interact via video call or not. “A healthy co-parenting plan promotes respect for each parent’s role, creates healthy boundaries and restructures the family in a positive way,” she says. And who knows? Maybe this will enhance your co-parenting regime and relationships after this crisis is over, too.